The kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic sect, has rightly aroused international condemnation. Boko Haram, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, believes that educating women is contrary to Islamic precepts. This is not the view of moderate Muslims everywhere.
Nor is it the view of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot and seriously injured by Taliban terrorists because she was keen to be educated. She has overcome her injuries and is doing her best to promote the rights of girls to an equal education with boys.
This horrific incident in northern Nigeria is not an isolated example of the dire consequences of religious extremism. There are other cases of behavior allegedly based on religious teachings that are contrary to accepted civilized norms. These raise important questions over the extent to which religious beliefs can be allowed to override internationally accepted norms and human rights.
The status of women is a key issue. Some Muslims demand segregation of the sexes in schools and other institutions and a different curriculum for girls.
Recently Islamic extremists or conservatives have allegedly attempted to take over a number of schools in the large city of Birmingham in Britain’s Midlands and impose segregation of boys from girls. These schools are being inspected, and action by authorities will surely follow if discrimination against girls or women teachers is found.
Another serious issue in Britain is female genital mutilation (FGM), which is practiced by some Muslims and is illegal in Britain. So far very few prosecutions have been brought not least because FGM is generally kept hidden by families and by the girls who have suffered mutilation.
Forced marriages among Muslim immigrants are also illegal but still occur.
Especially sad are the occasional “honor killings” that occur when Muslim girls become involved with boys without the consent of their parents.
These practices are not only illegal in Britain but also contrary to internationally accepted human rights. Other Islamic practices that are controversial but not illegal include a dress code prescribed for women (from head scarves to full coverage of a woman’s body except for a slit for the eyes) and insistence that meat should be killed in the prescribed ritual manner.
These practices do not raise human rights issues so long as compliance is voluntary, although some people object to the slaughter of animals by cutting their throats without first stunning them on the grounds that the practice involves cruelty to animals.
The internecine fighting in Syria between followers of rival Islamic sects and the preaching by Islamic extremists of the merits of Jihad and suicide bombing clearly flout human rights and cannot be condoned on any grounds.
It must be noted that a majority of Muslims in Britain do not approve of the practices I have described. Nor are they fundamental to Islam.
Other religions have also been guilty of practices that infringe on basic human rights or do not conform to generally accepted norms in the modern world. The historic wars of religion in Europe were all conducted under Christian banners, but were contrary to the basic tenets of Christianity and damaged its reputation.
Some evangelical Christian sects in America behave in intolerant ways that cause offense but are not illegal.
Some Christian churches have yet to accept that women can carry out all priestly functions.
The Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not allow women to become priests or bishops, and the Anglican Church in Britain has yet to agree to the appointment of women bishops although this is likely to be approved soon. Ultra-Orthodox Jews also discriminate against women.
Other religions endorse practices that lead to discrimination undermining human rights. The Indian caste system maintained by orthodox Hindus created a rigid class system. Violence against Muslims has tarnished the image of Hindu nationalists.
State Shinto in prewar Japan forced Christians and other religious minorities to revere the Emperor and the state.
Countless crimes have been committed against men, women and children in the name of religion, but freedom of religious belief and practice is an internationally accepted human right.
As with all rights, however, freedom of religion may not override the rule of law and religious beliefs cannot be allowed to limit or infringe on the human rights of others to sexual equality, access to education and basic freedoms.
In a modern democracy where there are peoples with different religious beliefs religious tolerance is essential. One way to promote tolerance is through a secular system of public education and not permit religious bodies to run publicly funded schools.
For historical reasons it is not possible to insist on the secularity of all schools in Britain.
The legal system in a democracy is rooted in generally accepted values. In European countries these values stem from Christian teaching and justify the assertion made recently by Prime Minister Cameron that Britain is a Christian country. But while the law lays down rules against acts that harm other people or society, it is not a code of ethics. The law cannot, for instance, force people to be charitable, polite or kind.
The immediate need is for action to force Boko Haram to free their kidnapped girls. The Nigerian government must do its utmost to trace their whereabouts and should use all means offered by other countries to help in the search and rescue operation.
Media throughout the world should give maximum publicity to the cause, promote religious tolerance and condemn practices that are offensive to civilized norms.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.